Setting OKRs for the New Year

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah; photo by the author

Welcome to 2019. Mathematically, the difference between December 31 and January 1 is negligible: 0.273% measured over the course of a year and 0.003% measured over the course of 78.6 years (the life expectancy for the United States population). And yet, closing that deal on December 31, rather than on January 1, is valued highly by your employer. So, too, is crossing that item off your bucket list before the ball drops. Isn’t it incredible to think about the extent to which humanity is beholden to a calendar that was created by a pope more than 400 years ago?

But I digress. It’s human nature to set goals, and all good goals must be time-bound. So, months, quarters, and years it is!

I thought it would be fun to share some of my personal goals for 2019, and instructive for my readers if I fashioned them as OKRs. If you aren’t familiar with OKRs (objectives and key results), I encourage you to read John Doerr’s Measure What Matters, the definitive book on the topic. In short, OKRs are a goal-setting framework that works as follows:

  • An objective is what you’re trying to achieve
  • The key results (typically 3–5) are how you’ll achieve the objective
  • Each key result must be measurable; achievement is binary
  • Key results should be “aggressive yet realistic”
  • If the key results are achieved, the objective is necessarily achieved

This last point is my favorite. A common mistake with OKRs is to choose key results that don’t make a meaningful difference in achievement of the objective — hence the title of Doerr’s book. As you’ll see from the following examples, choosing the right key results is easier said than done.

I want to lose 10 pounds in 2019. Knowing that it will be an uphill battle to lose weight from January–March (when I’m taking time off from work) and November–December (when the holidays get in the way of even the best laid plans), I’ve broken it down as follows:

  • Q1: Lose two pounds
  • Q2: Lose five pounds
  • Q3: Lose five pounds
  • Q4: Limit weight gain to two pounds

Objective: Lose two pounds by March 31

Diet, exercise, and rest are the primary influencers of physical fitness, and I have room to improve on all three. It’s difficult to make an iron-clad OKR for weight loss without getting into calorie counting, but I can get close by focusing on two parts of my diet that arguably are the greatest culprits for my weight gain: alcohol and sugar.

Key results:

  • Limit consumption of alcohol to four days each week
  • Limit consumption of dessert to one every two weeks
  • Do thirty minutes of aerobic exercise four times each week
  • Do twenty push-ups five times each week
  • Set aside eight hours for sleep three days each week

The last of these key results may seem strangely worded. Set aside eight hours for sleep? Why not just sleep for eight hours? Sadly, I cannot switch on and off like C-3PO and R2-D2; the best I can do is try to go to sleep at a certain time and set the alarm far enough in the future. I’m optimistic that a reduction in alcohol and sugar consumption, coupled with increased exercise, will help, but I may end up revising the key result.

Forgive me for omitting certain details in this section of the post; personal finance is personal, after all.

Throughout 2019, I want to take no more cash out of my savings account than I put into it. In other words, my expenses (including taxes) need to be no more than my income. Normally this wouldn’t be a challenge, but it may be this year because I’m enjoying time off from work and have no ordinary income. This means I need to focus exclusively on expense reduction at the moment, and in particular discretionary expense reduction.

Objective: Limit discretionary expenses to $X in Q1

To formulate key results for this objective, I identified and targeted my largest areas of discretionary expense: travel, dining out, and wine.

Key results:

  • Use loyalty points to pay for travel whenever their value is at least $0.015
  • Only take a taxi if public transportation would take two times as long
  • Limit dining out to seven times each week
  • When dining out, bring wine from my cellar if BYO is allowed; if not, limit restaurant wine purchases to $X per bottle
  • Limit retail wine purchases to $X

Two of these key results benefit from explanation.

Normally I set a higher valuation bar for loyalty points (my wife and I took a trip to Asia last year on a nearly $0.10 valuation!), but I’m prioritizing cash conservation, so $0.015 it is.

Dining out seven times each week sounds like a lot, but it’s considerably less than usual for me, and is only one third of meals per week (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). So, this key result is aggressive but realistic.

My goal for 2019 is to visit ten U.S. national parks that I didn’t visit in 2018. The primary constraints for leisure travel are available vacation time (which I have in abundance at present!) and disposable income. Since “visit ten national parks, as measured by booking the flights and rental cars” would be a boring (and bad) OKR, let’s have a little fun with the goal.

Objective: In 2019, create one original, portfolio-worthy photograph in each of ten U.S. national parks that I didn’t visit in 2018

Original means you haven’t seen the photograph before, e.g., on Instagram or Google Images. I probably need to get into the backcountry, which takes a lot of research and planning. Among other things, portfolio-worthy requires perfect execution. Improved knowledge of photography, my camera, and Adobe Lightroom is required.

Key results:

Time spent writing well-crafted OKRs is time well spent, and there’s no better prescription for increased goal attainment than documenting and sharing your goals. Hopefully this post has given you some ideas for how to apply OKRs to your own life and work.

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